The Arch of Constantine is hard to miss if you are visiting the Forum, the Colosseum or the Baths of Caracalla. It is situated to one side of the Colosseum in what is officially Via Triumphalis – the arch stands alone and is impressively huge, as one might expect from a monument to celebrate one of the Roman Empire’s best known emperors.
Constantine began his reign in 306AD alongside three co-emperors, including Emperor Maxentius, whom he defeated to rise to being sole emperor. The other two emperors were Licinus and Maximinus. Constantine the Great, as he is known, ruled the area of Spain, France (Gaul) and Britain. Maxentius ruled what we now know as Italy and Libya – Julius Caesar had created the area known as New Africa in 46AD. Licinus ruled Greece and Macedonia – and Maximinus, Middle Eastern countries, including Syria. After Maxentius was defeated in battle in 312AD, the consensus of opinion was that Constantine was the natural ruler of the Western Roman Empire – Hispania, Gaul and Britannia – and he became sole emperor.
Constantine is also known for supporting Christianity – the city once known as Byzantium was renamed in his honour. We now know the city as Istanbul, where east and west meet across the Bosphorus Strait.
The Arch of Constantine was dedicated in 315AD and became the triumphal arch all Roman emperors passed through. The best place to view it and take photos is either from the Temple of Venus in the Forum – or from the upper tier of the Colosseum, after you have passed through the Colosseum’s museum.
The arch was the final one to be built in Rome and re-uses in its decoration artwork from previous works. The inscription also charts Constantine’s success at the Battle of Milvian Bridge against Maxentius, who drowned in the River Tiber during the battle. His body was recovered and decapitated, his head being part of a victory procession through the streets of Rome.
It is soon after this that Constantine began to convert to Christianity. The Romans tended to worship a whole range of Gods, from well known deities like Venus and Apollo, to household gods of the hearth called the penates (pen-ar-tays) and the Vestal Virgins, who were keepers of home and hearth. The Forum is full of temples to the ancient Roman gods – some of them are better preserved than others, however.
It is said that Constantine and his troops received a vision from God which instructed them to decorate their shields with the first letters of Jesus Christ’s name as it would be written in Greek (Chi-Rho). However, the Arch does not bear any signs of Christian influences in its decoration – and at the time, the style of architecture and decoration was changing, so it is considered something of a pastiche of other periods and styles.
It remains, however, well preserved and one of the most recognisable and striking monuments in Rome. There are further arches in the Roman Forum, including those dedicated to Titus, Tiberius and Septimius Severus. Some commentators are even of the opinion the Arch of Constantine started life as the Arch of Maxentius. However, it is one monument in Rome that is unmissable and instantly recognisable.
Images copyright A.Meredith 2017/2018
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